The Medici Family

The great Medici family, friends of learning and patrons of culture, are recognized for their merits in promoting the Renaissance. However, one cannot refrain to condemn their political tyranny, and their crimes, as the character of even the best of them was often stained with the vices of their times.

Discounting all that, the fact remains that the Medici were not only influential in promoting the Renaissance, but also contributed to plant the seeds of the Reformation.

The origins of Medici power

The House of Medici was not originally noble, however, due to their wealth and political power they managed to intermarry with the royal families of Europe. When that happened, Italy was already the battle ground for the greater European powers, and the later Medici consented to eliminate the fiction of freedom left to the Florentine Republic, and to become Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Catherine de' Medici will marry Henry II of France, while Marie de' Medici (French: Marie de Médicis) was Queen of France as the second wife of King Henry IV.

Florence had a tumultuous history marked by conflicts like the ones between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, and later between the “Grandi," or nobles, and the "Arti," or trade guilds. There were seven Greater and fourteen Lesser Guilds, the most influential of all being the Guild of the Ciompi (Wool Carders). From the very early years of the conflicts, the Medici were consistently on the popular side.

In 1266 the Signory of Florence decided that only the “Arti” should be in charge with the government. As a result, an inhabitant who was not enrolled in one of the city guilds was completely excluded from the political life of the city state. The decision was obviously directed against the nobles, excluding them from any form of participation in the government, and leading to faction fights.

A Medici Pope: Leo X

Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici
became Pope Leo X
Portrait by Valore Casini

In 1283, the Ghibellines, allied with the "Grandi", were defeated, and very severe laws were passed against them. To overcome the situation, the nobles enrolled themselves in the Guilds, a process which produced fresh dissensions between what might be termed the "aristocratic" and the "democratic" trades. In 1378 these dissensions culminated in the Revolt of the Ciompi, which drove the Florentine Signory from the Palazzo Pubblico and assumed the government of the city.

All this turmoil constituted the launching pad for the ascension of the House of Medici.

Salvestro de' Medici

Salvestro was Gonfalonier of Justice when the revolt occurred. He supported the demands for privileges of the participants, and ensured that the Greater guilds and the Arti were equally represented.

When order was restored the foundations of Florence society were completely changed. From here, wealth alone was the only criteria in achieving distinction in the Republic of Florence, and the road was paved for the advancement of the House of Medici to the supreme power in State.

Although Salvestro and his cousin Veri held high offices in the Florentine Republic, the person who laid the foundation of the Medici family greatness was Giovanni de' Medici, the great-grandfather of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Giovanni de' Medici

Giovanni acquired an immense wealth by ways of commerce. His affability, moderation, and liberality won the confidence and esteem of his fellow citizens.

Giovanni was born about 1360. He was a far-seeing man, and he loved his country. He quickly identified the dangers from within, generated by the restless ambition of the rival leading families of Albizzi, Uzzani, the Valori, the Ricci, and the Alberti, whose cliques were constantly plotting, taking advantage of the impressionable feelings of the ordinary people.

He also was aware of the ever-menacing “external” danger coming from the States of Naples and Milan, in conjunction with the greed of the greater Western powers.

At the time of the Revolt of the Ciompi, four Florentine families supported the Lesser Guilds: the Medici, the Alberti, the Scali, and the Ricci. Thus they were seen as “democratic”, and had the highest chances to rule.

When order was restored in 1381, the Albizzi took the power and ruled Florence until 1434. Giovanni realized that opposing this dominant family will lead to ruin. He acted with prudence, convinced that temporarily accepting their domination will best serve the interests of the Medici family. As wealth dictated everything within the Florentine State, he devoted himself to the extension of his banking business, already one of the most important in Italy, by multiplying his connections and foreign agencies.

He realized that the Albizzi were spending more than they could afford in their efforts to keep the supreme power, and that time was on the side of the Medici.

Giovanni de’ Medici's policy was in strong contrast to that of his son Cosimo and his great-grandson Lorenzo. His nature was of an intellectual and religious conservatism, preferring the “known” medieval to the "modern," and looking with suspicion at the "New Learning." However, he insisted on his sons receiving an education which took every advantage from the new movement.

In 1427, the time for battle has come, and Giovanni placed himself in opposition to the Albizzi by taking the leadership of the "People's Party." From this position he demanded a more equitable system of taxation, which will cripple the power of his oligarchic enemies, and prepare the way for the victory of his son.

Cosimo de' Medici became the chief of the house in 1429. Though inheriting some of his parent's traits and adopting several of his principles, he was of a different nature, with distinct moral and political ideals.

Cosimo de' Medici was the initiator of a policy perfected later by Lorenzo, which will dictate the relations between the Medici family and the Republic of Florence for more than 140 years. His policy made Florence what it became in the days of Lorenzo de' Medici, and his attitude towards the Renaissance was adopted by all his family. Before anyone else, he came to the conclusion that the "Revival of Letters" was not a provincial but a European movement, and he decided to foster the new spirit with all his power. And it is Cosimo rather than Lorenzo who is considered by Machiavelli the master-plotter of the Renaissance.

The Medici Popes

The influence of the Medici in promoting the Renaissance manifested itself not only in Florence, but in Rome as well, where Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo, and Giulio (Clement VII), his nephew, continued the family policy.

Clement VII was inspired by the same ideals as his great-granduncle Cosimo. He was a humanist Pope, more inclined to lecture on the antiquities of Rome than to solve the convoluted problems of diplomacy. He attempted to play the role of Cosimo and Lorenzo, and to hold the balance of power in the Italian peninsula, but he lacked their determination. When his enemies became too strong, he had to turn either to Francis I, or to the Emperor Charles V, thus involving the great powers with the unfortunate result of the Sack of Rome.

The policy of the Medici family was always aimed at rendering Italy subservient to Florence, in other words, to themselves, by skillfully holding the balance of power between Milan, Venice, Naples, and the Papacy

Everywhere, the party favored by the Tuscan Republic naturally proved the stronger as it had the Medici family wealth and political genius on its side.